Conversations in America about gun control, public space, and safety–which are related but not equivalent–are grounded in affect, cultural/ideological identity, and ontology. I’ll swing around to the ontological element later, as that’s what is most relevant for my work, but I’ll stick with the more familiar elements first. Most strong opposition to gun control begins with the following:
- Affect: an affection or love for guns; a pleasure found in gun ownership and/or use.
- Cultural/ideological identity: being a gun owner is part of who you are. Criticism of gun ownership or use is an attack on your identity, your personhood, as well as the culture in which you participate.
Conversely, most strong support for gun control reflects little or no affection for guns (perhaps even antipathy toward them) and no personal or cultural sense of identity tied to gun ownership or use (and perhaps even identification with the rejection of guns). However, I think it is fair to say, those individuals tend not to define themselves by their opposition to guns to the degree that others identify with guns. Instead, their support of gun control is just a part of a larger bundle of cultural identifiers. Because affects are a matter of intensity, there are, of course, people who feel less strongly in either direction, though I would hesitate to put them “in the middle” because that suggest they feel strongly about some third position that is somehow a mixture of the extremes. If we are going to insist on some abstract political geometric model, I wouldn’t suggest a line but rather some multi-dimensional space with others at a tangent to these two opposed positions.
To make any kind of deliberative argument, there needs to be some common sense of a future. And put quite simply, we don’t have one. On the one side you have a vision of an America where everyone carries a gun. Public spaces are secured by individuals. And the only laws are natural/divine ones. The core of this ontological position is straightforward. My abilities to think and act are divinely granted qualities for which I bear an obligation to g-d. If I have a gun available to me, then I have more power and agency than I have without a gun. Even if, I am, in some respects, at greater danger, that’s always the case with power. As an individual I am always responsible for my exercise of power, and the degree of power I have doesn’t change that. I want a future society founded on powerful individuals acting responsibly and being held accountable for their actions.
The opposing ontology understands humans not as individuals with divinely granted powers but as social and historical animals. Here capacities for thinking and acting emerge from collective action through the assemblages, networks, and institutions we construct and maintain. Because I see my agency as relational rather than inherent, I would view any decision about gun control as an act of the state. That is, where the gun advocate would see restricting guns as a state action but not restricting guns as permitting a natural/divine condition to exist unregulated, I would view either decision as the operation of social-historical structures. Either course results in the creation of new conditions for agency but there would be no way to imagine a lack of gun control as the assertion of a more “free” condition in absolute terms because there are no absolute terms.
Hypothetically, from this second ontological perspective, one could argue in favor of arming citizens though I am having a hard time formulating one. You’d have to argue that increasing citizens’ ability to harm and kill one another directly produced a desirable set of social conditions. Or maybe you could argue that this negative effect of arming citizens was worth the cost in order to address some other problem or fulfill some other desire. I don’t think those are easy arguments to make if one is starting from an otherwise neutral position. You’re either arguing that 30K people dying every year is a good thing or that 30K people dying every year is a price worth paying to achieve _____. And it’s not easy to make those latter arguments in terms of safety or hobbies. If you’re worried protecting citizens from crime then you would seek to mitigate the social conditions that lead to criminal activity rather than arming individuals. If you wanted to allow for gun hobbies like target shooting or hunting then you could create carefully regulated spaces for such actions where guns are stored and ammo handed out more parsimoniously than opioids are today.
As I point out above though, from this perspective the gun control issue is bundled with a larger constellation of matters that begins with the premise that agency is created and destroyed through collective social action. Basic income, health care, education, environmental protection, equality before the law: through such collective actions agency can be increased. Of course the devil is in the details. But from this perspective collective inaction is just another form of collective action. The key from this ontological perspective is that political action is about working collectively to make things better, even though sometimes we fail to do so.
With that in mind, the key lies in the collective, democratic restructuring of social assemblages which results in a shift in affect. In our democracy, it’s hardly about changing the minds of your political opponents. It’s almost entirely about activating the undecided and non-participating votes. E.g., If you’re in favor of gun control how many of those folks can you convince to come out and vote against anyone who has an “A” grade from the NRA? In how many current red districts can support for the NRA become a political liability?